WASHINGTON (AP) - A top Veterans Affairs Department official is acknowledging "an integrity issue here among some of our leaders" as the embattled agency reels from mounting evidence that workers fabricated data on veterans' waits for medical appointments in an effort to mask frequent, long delays.
"It is irresponsible," Philip Matkovsky, a top VA official who helps oversee its administrative operations, told the House Veterans Affairs Committee at an unusual Monday evening hearing. "It is indefensible, and it is unacceptable. I apologize to our veterans, their families and their loved ones."
Matkovsky's apology, rendered hours after his agency released fresh revelations about slow-moving care, echoed acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson's contrition shortly after he replaced Eric Shinseki atop the agency. President Barack Obama accepted Shinseki's resignation on May 30, but that has not stopped the uproar over veteran's care from becoming an embarrassment for the Obama administration and a potential political liability for congressional Democrats seeking re-election in November.
Matkovsky did not specify which VA officials had questionable integrity. The agency has started removing top officials at its medical facility in Phoenix, a focal point of the department's problems, and investigators have found indications of long waits and falsified records of patients' appointments at hundreds of facilities.
Asked by Veterans Affairs panel Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla.
Richard Griffin, acting VA inspector general, told lawmakers his investigators were probing for wrong-doing at 69 agency medical facilities, up from 42 two weeks ago. He said he has discussed evidence of manipulated data with the Justice Department, which he said was still considering whether crimes occurred.
"Once somebody loses his job or gets criminally charged, it will no longer be a game and that will be the shot heard around the system," Griffin said.
Monday's hearing came as Congress moved toward addressing the problem, which drew intensified public attention two months ago with reports of patients dying while awaiting VA care and cover-ups at the Phoenix center. The VA, the country's largest health care provider, serves almost 9 million veterans.
Late Monday, lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol said they had finished writing similar bipartisan bills. Both would allow veterans facing long waits for care or living more than 40 miles from an agency medical facility to get VA-paid treatment from local, non-VA health care providers over the next two years.
The Senate measure would make it easier for the VA to fire top officials - much as a separate House-approved bill would do. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the House would vote on its new legislation this week, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said his chamber would vote "as soon as it is ready."
Monday night, lawmakers on the House veterans committee expressed impatience and a wariness of VA pledges to improve care. The agency's inspector general has been issuing reports about patient scheduling problems since at least 2005.
"We're going to get to the bottom of this," Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine, top Democrat on the panel, told reporters. "If that means criminal prosecutions, that means criminal prosecutions."
Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich., noted that a VA document misplaced an agency medical facility in his state in Wisconsin instead and told Matkovsky, "You can't place a facility in the right state, so I don't know how we can trust you with the big stuff."
"We are committed" to improvements, Matkovsky responded. "This is the start, not the end."
At the same hearing, an official from the Government Accountability Office - Congress' investigative arm - said that of 150 patients seeking special outpatient care, most were treated slower than agency guidelines suggest and almost half did not get requested care. One patient died before getting needed surgery the agency had approved from an outside provider, Debra Draper, GAO's director for health care, said.
Hours earlier, the VA released an internal audit showing more than 57,000 new patients had to wait at least three months for initial appointments. It also found that over the past decade, nearly 64,000 newly enrolled veterans requesting appointments never got one, though it was unclear how many still wanted VA care.
The audit covered 731 VA medical facilities. It said 13 percent of scheduling employees said they'd been instructed to enter falsified appointment dates, and 8 percent used unofficial appointment lists, both practices aimed at improving agency statistics on patient wait times.
As a result, the agency said it was ordering further investigations at 112 locations where interviews revealed indications of fabricated scheduling data or of supervisors ordering falsified lists.
Gibson, the acting VA secretary, directed several steps to address Monday's audit, including a short-term boost in medical services at overburdened facilities, including using mobile units.
The agency has contacted 50,000 veterans awaiting appointments and plans to reach 40,000 others to accelerate care, letting them choose VA treatment or local non-VA health-care providers.
The VA believes it will need $300 million over the next three months to accelerate medical care, money that will come from the agency's existing budget. That will include expanding clinics' hours and paying for some veterans to see outside providers.